The smartest move the City of Nelson ever made, purely from a financial standpoint, was building its own powerhouse at Bonnington. For over a century, the city has reaped the benefits of its foresight, and tens of millions of dollars have been paid into municipal coffers that otherwise would have likely gone to a private company.
But getting there was complicated and controversial. Before the switch was finally thrown in 1907, the city acquired a private company amid allegations of vote tampering and conflict of interest, and fought West Kootenay Power in court while struggling to keep the lights on.
At one point during an expropriation battle with government, the city was prepared let BC Hydro take over the whole works.
As part of Heritage Week, whose theme this year is Energy in BC, we pay tribute to Nelson’s hydropower legacy. The city had the first municipally-owned power plant in the province, and more than a century later, it has the only one left.
Starting today and continuing through Friday, we’ll learn about a proposal to turn Cottonwood Creek back into a power producer, take a nostalgic look at the free porch light policy, provide a timeline of key events, and ply you with all sorts of essential (and non-essential) trivia about our electrifying past.
Ten things you (probably) didn’t know about Nelson Hydro
1) The original brick powerhouse at Bonnington (below) was completed in 1907 and has been expanded three times to accommodate new generators. The 1910 addition was also in brick, while those in 1928 and 1949 were in concrete. (A separate facility was built to house the fifth generator, installed in 1995.) Among its quirks, the building doesn’t require any heat other than what’s produced by the generators themselves. It also has a large empty space — a provision for an extra unit that was never used. The powerhouse was officially named after local architect Alex Carrie in 1994.
2) During its construction, there was no road to the powerhouse, so John (Paddy) Miles ran a ferry across the Kootenay River at a spot known as Miles Ferry or Miles Crossing. Miles was a former policeman, better known for breaking the law than keeping it. In 1906, he applied for a hotel license on his property, but was denied partly due to the city’s objection to the sale of liquor near the power plant. Frustrated, Miles accosted Mayor William Gillette — and was fined $20. In 1908, Miles and two ferry passengers were swept over Bonnington Falls to their deaths. Before long, Miles Ferry vanished from the map.
3) The keeper of Nelson Hydro’s power plant history, Kevin Johnson (seen at right), has spent 20 years getting to know its idiosyncrasies as the day-to-day attendant. He also has a family connection to its operation: his great grandfather, Ed Picard, knew Paddy Miles and was a brother-in-law to Tom Needham, the plant’s first superintendent. Picard left a fascinating memoir that includes a rare glimpse into life in the West Kootenay during the late 1880s.
4) The Bonnington plant has five generators: G1 operated from 1907 until completion of the Kootenay Canal in 1974 and produced 750 kilowatts (three quarters of a megawatt). It was the first generator built by Allis Chalmers Bullock of Montreal. G2, with a rated capacity of one megawatt, operated from 1910 to 1995. G3 (2.5 megawatts) was in service from 1928-74 and 1988-95. G4 (six megawatts) has been in use since 1949 and is currently being rewound. G5 (seven megawatts) was installed in 1995 to take the place of G2 and G3, which are now standby units.
5) Nelson Hydro still has daily logbooks for the power plant dating back to 1910 (seen below). They’re pretty dry reading, but in at least one case came in handy for diagnosing an historical problem on one of the generators.
6) For the first few years, Nelson’s generating station was completely run-of-river. A wooden dam was built in 1910, and replaced in 1940 with a concrete dam with a higher head.
7) Before the road to the power plant was improved, the city provided housing for workers. There was a boarding house where the substation now stands, plus several individual homes. Most were demolished in the mid-1980s because the city didn’t want the liability of renting them to non-Hydro employees. The final home was torn down within the last decade.
8) For many years, Nelson Hydro has provided consulting services to Grand Forks, which has its own electrical distribution system and buys power wholesale from FortisBC — a legacy of a city-owned power plant operated on the Smelter Lake dam there from 1932-46. Many other cities and villages generated their own power, including Kaslo, New Denver, and Slocan, but as demand increased, their systems were absorbed or replaced by West Kootenay Power or BC Hydro. A few places still buy power wholesale and redistribute it to residents — namely Summerland, Penticton, Kelowna, and New Westminster — but Nelson is the only city left in the generation business.
9) Nelson’s ability to meet its own power needs has changed over the decades. In the early years, the Bonnington plant supplied all commercial and residential customers as well as the streetcar system and Civic Centre. By the 1940s, however, the city began to buy extra electricity from West Kootenay Power during low water, and by the mid-1950s the two systems were permanently linked. Today Nelson generates about 55 per cent of its own power over the course of a year — it meets all of the demand at high water in the spring, but only about one-third during peak load — and buys the rest from FortisBC.
10) While construction of the highway interchange in the early 1970s destroyed any sign of the original Cottonwood Creek dam, stone footings from the power plant can still be seen behind the Rod and Gun Club (seen below). After the Bonnington powerhouse began operation, the old plant was leased to A. Gordon French for zinc ore reduction experiments. The generator and wheel were later sold to Canadian Marble Works at Marblehead, and then in 1913 went to Mirror Lake, where they provided residents with power for at least 20 years. One of the early generators is on display outside the old Nelson museum on Anderson Street.